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by Paul Goerhke

Murphy is routinely considered Samuel Beckett’s most traditional novel. In it the eponymous Mr. Murphy attempts to retreat from life, finds employment, unknowingly becomes the object of a manhunt, and ultimately meets his demise in what is termed a “classical case of misadventure.”

Publishing History

Begun in August 1935 and finished the following June, Murphy was Samuel Beckett’s first published novel. His previous attempt, a juvenescent bildungsroman titled Dream of Fair to Middling Women, was finished but eventually jettisoned and used piecemeal for a short story collection, More Pricks than Kicks (Chatton & Windus, 1934). Chatto & Windus had the option of publishing Beckett’s next work, but decided against it after reading the manuscript of Murphy. Forty-one other publishers rejected Murphy shortly thereafter. The persistent failure to publish Murphy took its toll on Beckett who had gone through a similar fiasco with Dream of Fair to Middling Women. With characteristic verve, he sent a squib to his literary agent, George Reavey: “The last I remember is my readiness to cut down the work to its title. I am now prepared to go further, and change the title, if it gives offense.”

It wasn’t until 1937 that Jack Butler Yeats—painter, author, and brother to W.B. Yeats—wrote to T.M. Ragg, his editor at Routledge, to read the manuscript of Murphy. Yeats had read Beckett’s “other novel [More Pricks]…and thought it the real thing.” Ragg wrote back with auspicious returns:

I enjoyed [Murphy] immensely. I want to publish it, and I am seeing [SB’s literary agent] Reavey tomorrow to talk the matter over with him. I am afraid there is no doubt that it is far too good to be a big popular or commercial success. On the other hand it, like your own book, will bring great joy to the few.

Routledge published Murphy on March 7, 1938. Within London literary circles, it received accolades for its wit and unique voice, though no review appeared in Ireland until the spring of the following year. The review, unsigned in Dublin Magazine, was not complimentary. Routledge was “satisfied” with Murphy’s initial commercial success, selling 240 copies in the first 3 weeks. But in the years that followed, Ragg’s fears proved prescient and sales were disappointingly “sluggish.”

Biographical Context

The setting of Murphy is split between London and Dublin. This geographical divide closely mirrors Beckett’s own residency during the period of the book’s composition. Beckett left Ireland in early 1934 seeking professional help for his insomnia, panic attacks, depression, and irregular heartbeat (an affliction Murphy shares) which had been troubling him since his father’s death the previous summer. Beckett was advised to undergo psychoanalysis on the likelihood that his problems were self-induced. Because the practice of psychoanalysis was illegal in Dublin at the time, Beckett moved to London to become a patient of Dr. Wilfred R. Bion, an unorthodox Freudian psychoanalyst at the Tavistock Clinic, where he attended intensive therapy sessions up to three times a week for the next two years. It was at Tavistock that Beckett heard Swiss psychologist Carl Jung lecture on ego-consciousness and psychic birth. Beckett’s investment in psychology and in his personal treatment at this time later informed many sections of Murphy, most famously those focused on Murphy’s mind. Much of the tension between free will and predestination in Murphy probably stems from Tavistock. Bion likely had Beckett get his horoscope taken, and Beckett writes, perhaps incredulously, that Jung too “insists on patients having their horoscopes cast!” The “corpus of motives” which directs so much of the action in Murphy is cast in the mold of these idiosyncratic interests. In broader terms, however, the unique influence of the Jung lecture on Beckett’s development as a writer is without question. London offered Beckett more than just personal recovery. As a writer, it was also a site of professional discovery. Beckett spent a great deal of time in London’s parks, streets, libraries, and art museums (on the days when admission was free), and spent many evenings attending films, ballets, and concerts. He filtered these experiences into his novel: some of them quite literally, like the tours he took of Bethlem Royal Hospital (the famed “Bedlam”). The streets, where he “trudged for hours on end….[covering] as much as twenty miles in a day,” are accounted for with the precision of a surveyor (his father’s profession). Likewise, much of Murphy’s uneasy realism comes from Beckett’s “frequent, leisurely meanderings and careful observations,” particularly in and of parks. In fact, a key inspiration for Murphy is rooted in one of these meanderings. Of an event at Round Pond, (“a favorite stopping off place for both Beckett and Murphy” ) Beckett writes to a friend:

Yesterday there was a regular club of [old men flying kites]…They fly them almost out of sight…Then when the string is run out they simply sit there watching them, chucking at the string, the way coachmen do at reins…I was really rooted to the spot yesterday, unable to go away and wondering what was keeping me. Extraordinary effect too of birds flying close to the kites but beneath them. My next old man, or old young man, not of the big world but of the little world, must be a kite-flyer.

Kite-flying would become the last chapter of Murphy, even though it was Beckett’s first glimpse of the novel. The scene’s vivid lyricism remained even in the final text. By Christmas 1935 Beckett returned to Dublin, stopping his treatment despite continued psychosomatic struggles. By this time, Beckett had written more than half of the novel. But when he returned to Dublin, “Beckett’s notions of what Murphy was about…obviously changed.” He recognized that entertainment, however well crafted, was not what he hoped to accomplish. Instead, he reshaped the novel to be more ambiguous in its definitions. Characters that are presented as buffoonish in the first 150 pages of the novel subsequently have philosophical conversations in the later half. This dramatic shift of tone and approach mirrors Beckett’s move from London to Dublin. With this new approach, Beckett situated Murphy between “[Geulincx’s] ubi nihil vales ibi nihil velis (position) & Malraux’s Il est difficile à celui qui vit hors du monde de ne pas rechercher les siens (negation).” Each idea finds its place in chapter nine of the novel, and Beckett would later point to “Geulincx’s statement about worth and will as being one of the keys to an understanding of Murphy.” Beckett spent the rest of the spring reading heavily on his own, working through Geulincx at Trinity College, walking off his low spirits, and imagining himself as a teacher at Harvard or as a student in Moscow. Murphy was started in the “sanctuary & reality” of London, but finished in the bottled inertia of Dublin. It is situated between these two poles as much as between Geulincx and Malraux. The events in the book itself take place in 1935 and calendar dates in the novel are accurate as given.


As a novel, Murphy has “the difficulty of a difficult person.” Indeed, the novel is one of those dense, rarefied works which seems to test the limits of the English dictionary. It is a portmanteau novel commonly and not inaccurately deemed “Joycean” in its plentiful use of “Joycean punning and veiled allusions.” Part-melodrama, part-meditation, part-ruse, part-knell, Murphy also has much of the style which would later be known as “Beckettian.” Neither the inheritance nor the similarity between the two is purely literary: during his years in Paris, Beckett acted as James Joyce’s assistant and translator. They were from different Dublin upbringings, but they were like-minded in their outlook and fond of each other’s company. Beckett was “devoted” to Joyce; from time to time he was known to adopt Joyce’s mannerisms. Outside of their shared interest in art, however, there often “wasn’t a lot of conversation” between them. Joyce’s son, Giorgio, was nearly the same age as Beckett, and the Joyce household in Paris was often Beckett’s home-away-from-home (he even spent holidays with the Joyce family on occasion). Beckett, especially in his early writings, never avoided being compared to Joyce, even if his work came up short in comparison. “Mr Beckett has imitated everything in James Joyce – except the verbal magic and the inspiration,” wrote one reviewer of More Pricks than Kicks. Though Beckett remained under Joyce’s influence throughout his life, he was able to make his own name—Beckettian—for himself. Murphy occupies the same place in Beckett’s corpus as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in Joyce’s. Both had a published book of poems and a collection of short stories behind them, which were alike in sketching out a sometimes-sardonic, sometimes-sentimental Dublin milieu. Murphy itself deals with many of the same themes as Portrait – the condition of exile and the definition of free will—but it does so from the backstage, rather than the spotlight. Murphy’s thunder is quieter and its scope more limited. Beckett’s hero seeks escape, not exile. Curiously, Murphy “escapes” through bondage and acquiescence. His particular brand of Cartesian alienation puts Murphy in the position where he is not one with himself. Murphy’s feelings on the subject of this division are quite clear: “There was the mental fact and there was the physical fact” and Murphy is “satisfied that neither followed the other.” Likewise, Murphy’s mind and Murphy’s body are as “two synchronized clocks that exactly agree without influencing each other casually,” or like the two sides in Murphy’s chess game; neither can win until the other surrenders. Only by surrendering his bodily will—via the chair, via Murphy’s “surrender to the thongs of self” —can he become “astir in his mind.” Throughout the novel, active mental retreat is Murphy’s one consolation and his most tenable aim. By retreating, however, Murphy’s battle is won not through victory but further surrender. At the heart of his mental activity is a yearning for the “will-lessness” which awaits him in the “dark” zone of his mind. Here is where he spends “more and more and more” of his time. For Murphy, freedom exists not in free will, but in the relinquishing of free will, beyond the rational parts of his mind, in the “surds” of his unconscious depths. To get there requires Murphy to undertake a journey to the self, past his body and through the light and the half-light zones of his mind. However, as Beckett later realized, “journey…is the wrong figure. How can one travel to that from which one cannot move away? Das notwendige Bleiben [The Necessary Staying Put] is more like it.” Descriptive mappings of this non-journey cascade and echo through Murphy: the rock of the chair, the fading out of sensation, and the climax which becomes a mantra, “Soon his body would be quiet, soon he would be free.” The death of Murphy, in fact, concludes with a passage taken verbatim from the first chapter:

Slowly he felt better, astir in his mind, in the freedom of that light and dark that did not clash, nor alternate, nor fade nor lighten except to their communion….Soon his body would be quiet, soon he would be free.

This final section adds a final line: “Soon his body was quiet.” Many have noted that Murphy is structured on echo and repetition; here Beckett uses those structures to express an idea without actually writing it. The grammar and the elision prompt the reader to supply“…soon his body was free.” Having achieved freedom from himself and the world, Murphy (though not Murphy) at last comes to an end. But because of this end, the nature of his freedom is in question. How is Murphy free if he is no longer Murphy? Beckett describes Murphy’s mind as “the part of himself that [Murphy] loved,” as if it were a mental Paradise. However, Beckett’s handling of some parts of Murphy’s mind hearkens back to an earlier description, not of Paradise, but of Purgatory. In an essay on Joyce’s Work in Progress, Beckett compared Dante’s Purgatory to Joyce’s, which is “spherical” and a “flood of movement and vitality.” Murphy’s mental zone of half-light may be blissful and beatific, but his darkness is Purgatorial in its “forms becoming and crumbling into fragments of new becoming.” The movement is not harmonious but “a tumult of non-Newtonian motion.” This motion is destructive because it is chaotic. After surrendering to Mr. Endon in chess, Murphy looks at him and sees a “big blooming buzzing confusion or ground, mercifully free of figure.” The will-less Endon, free of any defined forms, is Murphy’s chaotic tumult incarnate, a dark “perpetual coming together and falling asunder of forms” without the “figure” of ego stand solid against the “confusion or ground.” Murphy’s former tutor, Neary, once instructed him that “all life is figure and ground.” He described this set-up as “the face…against the big blooming buzzing confusion.” Endon collapses these distinctions even as he typifies them. The gas—its origin the Greek word for ‘chaos’—which destroys Murphy’s body is described as “excellent gas, superfine chaos” released into his attic room. It is also the release of Murphy’s unconscious id—his dark zone that is already manifest in Endon—into the world. Murphy, following Jung, “is a victim of the…autonomous activity that does not start from the ego but from the dark sphere.” His undoing comes from sinking too far below the conscious existence to that abandonment of Self where “the Will is at abeyance.” At the end of the novel there are no figures in the grounds. They are “all out.” In the end, Murphy too is all out. After being cremated, his ashes are scattered, ingloriously, across the floor of a pub. He is no longer a “figure” in the novel, but a “big, blooming, buzzing confusion,” part of the “sand, the beer, the butts, the glass, the matches, the spits, the vomit.” Murphy’s lover, Celia, finds that her efforts to make Murphy a man only made him “more than ever Murphy.” Murphy finds his efforts to free himself make him “not free, but a mote in the dark of absolute freedom.” Murphy’s attempts to escape into “will-lessness” bring him to a place where he finds it is “better to perish than be freed” —where they are, in fact, the same. Though “without Murphy, there could be no Murphy,” there is, all the same, more to Murphy than Murphy. Beckett was more aware of this than anyone. “There seemed to me always the risk of taking [Murphy] too seriously and separating him too sharply from the others,” he explained. “As it is I do not think the mistake (Aliosha mistake) has been altogether avoided.” His desire to give equal attention to all the characters is apparent in the novel’s structure: Murphy ends 29 pages and 2 chapters after Murphy does. After he finished the novel, Beckett ruminated on this decision:

Very early on, when the mortuary and Round Pond scenes were in my mind as the necessary end, I saw the difficulty and danger of so much following Murphy’s own “end”. There seemed 2 ways out. One was to let the death have its head in a frank climax and the rest be definitely epilogue…And the other, which I chose and tried to act on, was to keep the death subdued and go on as coolly and finish as briefly as possible. I chose this because it seemed to me to consist better the treatment of Murphy throughout, with the mixture of compassion, patience, mockery and “tat twam asi” [thus thou art] that I seemed to have directed on him throughout

Murphy has thirteen chapters: two in Dublin, seven in London, three in the asylum, and one in Murphy’s mind. It is a paced and, as is clear from Beckett’s own later analysis, a highly constructed novel. However, Murphy is also a mess, even if a calculated one. One critic memorably called it “Racine played by the Marx brothers.” This structured mess finds its strongest expression in the middle chapters of the novel, where “everything threatens to go haywire, everything and everyone (except Celia) is in movement from or towards something, and every narrative thread is left dangling in need of some presently deferred solution.” As a comedy of forced errors, as a novel of dangling threads and pulled strings, Murphy is true to its word: all the characters are puppets, except for Murphy. Beckett did not avoid the mistake of taking Murphy too seriously. Murphy is neither a work of philosophy nor psychology, but its use of both disciplines challenged its author to create his first enduring work of fiction.

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